Spaceflight Insider

Unclassified NRO CubeSats hitch ride on WorldView-4 launch

ULA Atlas V WorldView-4 launch

An Atlas V with the WorldView-4 satellite, along with seven small CubeSats, soars into the sky. Photo Credit: Jim Sharkey / SpaceFlight Insider

When one thinks of satellites in the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) fleet, the mind’s eye may conjure pictures of Hubble-sized spy satellites with lenses pointed toward Earth engaged in super-secret intelligence gathering. While that mental image may be somewhat accurate, it is by no means complete.

The secretive U.S. intelligence agency doesn’t always work in the shadows with hardware easily tipping the scale well into the thousands of pounds and millions of dollars. Sometimes they work at the other end of the spectrum.

Taking advantage of excess capacity available on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V, seven unclassified NRO CubeSats hitched a ride on the Nov. 11, 2016, launch of the WorldView-4 satellite. It was part of a ridesharing program offered by ULA. This was the fifth time the NRO had done so, although it was the first time the agency partnered with a commercial company on a mission such as this.

The seven ENTERPRISE CubeSats are part of a group of unclassified technology demonstration projects with missions designed to test electric propulsion concepts, gather climate change data, and assess the ability of CubeSats to communicate beyond the horizon.

Each CubeSat was deployed from the Aft Bulkhead Carrier on the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage about two-and-a-half hours after launch. The first six left in sets of two while the seventh departed alone.

The intelligence agency worked with Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., along with California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), to secure the rideshare with ULA and DigitalGlobe. Tyvak acted as the integrator for all of the CubeSats.

The 2015 NROL-55 mission deployed CubeSats, similar to the WorldView-4 mission, which can be seen at 1:09 in the video.
Video courtesy of United Launch Alliance


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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